By Dr Chandra Muzzafar
European Union foreign ministers have agreed to a full-fledged embargo on all imports of Iranian crude oil. Towards this end, various measures will be adopted gradually from 23rd January to 1st July 2012. In December 2011, the US Congress (with a 100 to 0 vote in the Senate) presented a mandatory sanctions package to President Obama which starting June 2012 will prohibit any third-country banks and companies from dealing with Iran’s Central Bank. Both the EU and US moves, it is alleged, are aimed at pressurising Iran to stop its so-called ‘nuclear weapons’ programme through the emasculation of its oil exports which account for more than 80% of its national revenue.
Nuclear Weapons Programme
The first question we should ask is: Does Iran have a nuclear weapons programme? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) --- its mischievous attempt to raise doubts about Iran’s nuclear energy programme notwithstanding--- admits in its November 2011 Report that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. Incidentally, every nuclear installation in Iran has been inspected hundreds of times by the IAEA making them the most thoroughly inspected nuclear facilities on earth! Even the US’s own classified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) 2011--- which the well-known investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, had exposed in May 2011--- states quite clearly that Iran is not producing nuclear weapons and had in fact halted such a programme way back in 2003. NIE 2011 in a sense reiterates what is contained in NIE 2007.
Of course, Iran continues to enrich uranium up to the 20% level required for the production of medical isotopes. This is far below the 85% plus necessary to manufacture a nuclear bomb. Every major leader in Iran has emphasised over and over again that they have no intention of making a bomb. They regard it --- rightly--- as haram (or prohibited in Islam).
Because its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes--- medical research and electricity---- the Iranian government agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal initiated by Brazil and Turkey in May 2010 which would have seen Iran shipping low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for fuel for a research reactor. The Western powers and Israel rejected the deal.
Their rejection underscores the stark hypocrisy that surrounds the entire issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. If it is nuclear weapons that they are concerned about why didn’t they accept a deal that would have, to a large extent, curbed any clandestine move by Iran to produce such weapons? Or, are certain Western powers and Israel against Iran producing nuclear energy even for peaceful purposes --- a right that Iran possesses as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?
It is important to raise these questions for two other reasons. One, the countries that are most vocal in demanding that Iran terminate its uranium enrichment programme are all nuclear weapon states. The US has an arsenal of more than 5000 nuclear warheads while Israel, an undeclared nuclear state---- the only nuclear weapon state in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) --- has perhaps between 200 and 400 warheads. Two, countries such as the US, Britain, France and even Israel had no qualms about assisting Iran to launch its nuclear programme in the fifties when it was under the Shah, Reza Pahlavi. US President, Dwight Eisenhower, saw it as an “atoms for peace” enterprise. One does not have to second guess why they were all so enthusiastic about the Shah’s nuclear energy programme---- because the dictator was their gendarme in that corner of WANA, protecting their strategic, political and oil interests with all his brutal might.
Why did the West and Israel change their attitude towards Iran’s nuclear programme? Was it because an Islamic Revolution had occurred in Iran in 1979? Was Islam the decisive factor? Islam per se was not the major reason for the change in attitude. After all, the West counts as its allies a number of countries that view themselves as ‘Islamic States’ and subscribe to a somewhat narrow, exclusive idea of Islam and Muslim identity. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and most of the Gulf Sheikhdoms would be outstanding examples. Colluding and collaborating with these states and other Islamic movements has never been a problem for the centres of power in the West.
The real reason why the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear programme became anathema for the West and Israel was because of Iran’s defence of its independence and integrity in the face of US and Western hegemony. The Islamic Republic under the guidance of its charismatic leader Ayatollah Khomeini was not prepared to submit to US dominance or acquiesce with Israeli arrogance. From the outset --- from 1979 itself--- Iran was determined to manage its own destiny which is why it nationalised oil and strengthened its self-reliance.
In an earlier period--- in 1953 to be exact--- another Iranian leader, this time a highly principled secular democrat, Mohammad Mosaddegh, had also sought to assert Iranian independence and sovereignty by nationalising oil. This incurred the wrath of the British and American elites whose companies dominated the local oil industry. With the help of their intelligence services, they managed to oust Mosaddegh from his Prime Ministership and restore full authority to the Shah.
Others in WANA, at different times and in different circumstances, have also paid the price for resisting dominance. Gamal Nasser in Egypt, Houri Boumediene in Algeria, Hafiz Assad in Syria, Yasser Arafat in Palestine (and other Palestinian freedom fighters), Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, had all at some point or other in their lives refused to yield to hegemonic power. Today, there are leaders like Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, Khalil Meshal in Palestine, and Bashar Assad in Syria who continue to resist Israeli power and US hegemony and are therefore targeted by Tel Aviv and Washington.
It is appropriate to observe at this juncture that resistance to US hegemony has had a longer and perhaps more tragic history in parts of Latin America. From Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti to Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa these and other illustrious leaders have unflinchingly opposed attempts by the US elite to subjugate the people of Latin America and subordinate the continent to the whims and fancies of its northern neighbour. Indeed, today there is a new determination in Latin America to strengthen the independence of individual states and of the region as a whole through cooperation and collective action that is both innovative and dynamic.
There is no doubt at all that it is Iran’s refusal to be subservient to the US, Israel and their allies, its readiness to resist, that has incensed the powers-that-be. It explains why they are going all out to emasculate the Iranian economy, manufacture mass disaffection with the government and, at the right moment, engineer a regime change. The excuse they are using for this manipulation is of course Iran’s unproven nuclear weapons programme. In the scenario that is unfolding before our eyes, there are shades of the build-up that led to the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 2003.
While Iran’s desire to remain independent has been a prominent feature of the nation’s personality since the Revolution 33 years ago, there must be situations and circumstances that are more current and contemporary which have given rise to this obsession in Tel Aviv and in certain Western capitals with the targeting and taming of Iran. What are these situations and circumstances? There are many. We shall highlight some of them.
1) In the wake of the Arab uprising, the Israeli elite has become extremely apprehensive about the state’s security and its future. It is afraid that popular movements sweeping through WANA would eventually challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli regime. Though Israel’s protector, the US, has sought assurances from some of the Islamic parties that have come to power that they will not question the Israeli presence, the Israeli elite regards the increasing influence of states and movements in WANA that are firmly opposed to Israeli suppression of Palestinian rights--- the most powerful of which is of course Iran--- as a huge threat to Israel’s very existence. This is why it wants its protector, buttressed by its European allies, to castrate Iran immediately.
2) This fear has increased dramatically in recent months with the economic decline of its protector and the economic crisis embroiling various European states. Israel knows that the US’s decline is part of a general decline which in a sense is irreversible and would therefore want its protector to act decisively against Israel’s foes like Iran now when the US still has the military muscle rather than wait until it is too late. For the US elite itself, the most serious implication of its decline is its loss of control over WANA, the world’s major oil exporting region which is, at the same time, of tremendous geostrategic significance. When hegemonic powers are losing their dominance, do they not become more bellicose in attempting to perpetuate their power and privilege? Should we be surprised when they turn against other actors on the ascendancy who are perceived as the cause of their decline?
3) For both the US and Israeli elites and European leaders allied to them, it is Iran which is the lynchpin of the challenge to their hegemony over WANA. Iran maintains a tried and tested link to the Syrian leadership and to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas is also to a certain degree part of this link which in broad terms constitutes the resistance to US-Israel hegemony. As the fulcrum of this resistance, Iran has displayed remarkable tenacity--- a tenacity which is now expressing itself in its ability to take on US drones and US spies and to openly challenge US military power. Similarly, the Syrian crisis, orchestrated to a large extent by external forces, has revealed the resilience of the Bashar Assad government. Likewise, in defending Lebanon against the Israeli assault in 2006, the Hezbollah showed that it possesses both strategic depth and immense courage which in the end thwarted the Israeli agenda. Both Israel and the US are determined to not only break the link of resistance but also to crush each of the component elements of the link.
4) What has strengthened their determination to act against Iran in particular is the situation in Iraq. The Israeli and US elites had hoped that the conquest of Iraq would help to create a new environment in WANA which would reinforce their grip over oil and strengthen their geostrategic position in the region through a subservient leadership in Baghdad eager to do their bidding. Given Iraq’s importance, the Baghdad leadership, they reckoned, would succeed in shaping an atmosphere in the region conducive to Israel even if it were at the cost of Palestinian self-determination. However, things have not worked according to plan. While US and British companies have managed to secure lucrative oil deals, Israeli and US elites have failed to gain political control over Iraq. A nation that is politically unstable, socially chaotic and deeply divided along sectarian lines, there is endless jockeying for power among contending groups. In the midst of this maelstrom, most of the groups within the majority Shia community seem to have gravitated towards Shia Iran. Shia affinity has undoubtedly smoothened the forging of political ties across the Iraq-Iran border. Recent political developments in Iraq indicate that the influence that emanates from these ties is considerable. It is this that annoys and angers the Israeli, US and British elites. Their political defeat in Iraq which is a major setback for them in WANA and beyond is one of the primary reasons why they are now training their guns on Iran.
5) Iran’s influence over Iraq has also riled some regional actors. The monarchical elite in Saudi Arabia, with its Wahabi orientation, often manifests an almost visceral hatred towards the Shia sect. Some Saudi leaders regard it as their duty to defend the Sunni majority against the rising Shia tide. They are not alone in perceiving growing Shia influence and power --- in Iraq, in Syria through the Alawite elite, in Lebanon via Hezbollah, and in Bahrain--- as a mortal threat to the Sunnis. The Qatari leadership and even some Turkish politicians and intellectuals have begun to ring the alarm bells. The latter, it is said, are backing some hard-line Sunnis in Iraq. These anti-Shia sentiments which are spreading quite rapidly in WANA have heightened the antagonism towards Iran. They have strengthened the hand of the US and Israel and their European allies as they prepare to move against the Iranian Republic.
6) For the US curbing Iran’s influence goes beyond WANA. Iran has become close to Russia in the last couple of years. The relationship is strategic and economic especially since they have overlapping interests in Central Asia and the Caspian region. Russia itself is re-asserting its power in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, West Asia and South Asia, much to the chagrin of the US. That is why it is uneasy about a Russian-Iranian nexus developing in the future.
7) Of even greater significance to the US’s hegemonic agenda is the relationship between Iran and China. Largely economic in nature, China imports 9% of its oil and 15% of its gas from Iran. China has massive investments in the oil and gas industry in Iran, and is helping to upgrade its infrastructure in general. Since access to energy is critical for China’s development, the US which is determined to contain China, is keen on exercising control over China’s sources of energy supply. What this means is that curtailing Iran’s oil and gas exports may in fact be part of a larger agenda whose principal goal is the containment of China, the nation that the US and the West view as the most formidable challenge ever to their centuries old dominance.
8) Iran’s expanding ties with various Latin American countries also irks the US. Countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, among others have become good friends of Iran in recent years. Most of these states are opposed to US dominance over Latin America. A couple of them have become very critical of Israeli occupation of Palestine. Since Venezuela and Ecuador are also major oil exporters, the US is worried that the ties that Iran, also an important oil exporter, is forging with them could enhance their collective clout in the global economy to the detriment of the US. This is yet another reason why the US sees Iran as a challenge to its hegemonic power.
9) It is not just because of Iran’s ties with oil exporting states in Latin America or its export of oil to China that oil is also a factor that explains the targeting of Iran. As one of the top five oil exporters in the world, Iran is an attractive destination for a lot of oil companies especially from the US --- a country which has been excluded from Iran’s petroleum sector for more than three decades. According to petroleum experts there are oil and gas fields that have yet to be explored fully. There is also money to be made from infrastructure investments. US and other Western oil firms are hungering to go in--- just as they moved into Iraq after the invasion in 2003.
10) A final factor that is responsible for this fixation with Iran is perhaps the position of the US dollar. The dollar, needless to say, is one of the most crucial pillars of US global hegemony. This is the reason why any attempt to redefine its role as the world’s principal reserve currency elicits an immediate response from US financial and political circles. In the last few years Iran has been steadily distancing itself from the US dollar in its trade transactions. At the end of December 2011, it signed an agreement with China that states that the Iranian rial and the Chinese yuan would be used in bilateral trade. In early January 2012, Iran made a similar arrangement with Russia, the rial and the rouble replacing the US dollar. Iran and India are holding discussions on moving out of dollar settlements. Trading in gold is an option they are considering. These moves by Iran have assumed great significance because others, including US allies, are abandoning the dollar in some of their bilateral trade arrangements. Japan and China, for instance, have announced that they will trade in yen and yuan. Because Iran is perceived as one of those nations pushing hard for the abandonment of the dollar, the US has her in its sights. It has been suggested that one of the reasons why the US decided to invade Iraq in 2003 was because Saddam Hussein had switched from the dollar to the euro for the sale of his country’s oil.
The ten points elaborated here prove that the US and its allies have zero tolerance for any challenge, however minor, to US hegemonic power or to the position of Israel. Those who resist their power and position will pay the price. In the last 30 odd years, Iran has paid the price of resistance in hundreds of ways. Less than a year after the Islamic Revolution, a war was imposed upon Iran --- a war led by the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, on behalf of all the Gulf Sheikhdoms, a number of other Arab states, the US, Britain, certain other Western governments, and even the Soviet Union. Though Iran’s adversaries had different motives, their common objective was to crush the Revolution which they saw as a challenge to their interests. A million lives were lost on both sides of the divide in the eight year war which emasculated the Iranian economy and sapped the nation’s energy. In June 1981, a vicious bomb explosion wiped out some top political leaders, a huge number of parliamentarians, and leading figures in the Judiciary. This, and other subsequent terrorist attacks, it is alleged, were master-minded by a militant group operating from Iraq called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. In recent years the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme has been subjected to a cyber- attack and four of its scientists have been assassinated. And for decades, Iran has been under US economic sanctions which have had a negative impact upon its development programme.
Indeed, very few countries have been subjected to the pain and suffering that Iran has gone through in the last 33 years. The perseverance and fortitude of the Iranian people, as we have alluded to, is awe-inspiring. And yet, an objective analysis of Iran’s response to hegemony would suggest that Iranian leaders and activists have also made serious mistakes. From the perspective of international law and diplomacy, it was clearly wrong of Iranian students to seize the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979 and hold its occupants hostage for 444 days. Storming the British Embassy in the nation’s capital on 29 November 2011 was also a foolish act for which Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has apologised. Likewise, allegations of foul-play in the June 2009 Presidential Election could have been better handled. The Iranian authorities should have countered those allegations by demonstrating their commitment to total electoral transparency and accountability. The language that the current Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sometimes employs on matters of grave international significance is intemperate and injudicious. However difficult the situation maybe, there is no need to deliberately provoke or irritate one’s enemies. As a case in point, though Ahmadinejad’s oft-quoted remarks about Israel were distorted and twisted by the Western media and politicians, the Iranian President could have adopted a more mature yet principled stance vis-à-vis the Jewish state.
Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Muhammad Khatami, proved that it was possible to defend Iran’s independence and dignity without being unduly confrontational. He sought to meet the challenge of hegemony by insisting upon dialogue among civilisations and the politics of inclusiveness. Khatami was prepared to talk to the US leadership. But instead of welcoming the offer of dialogue, US President, George Bush Junior, chose to castigate Iran as part of an “axis of evil.”
The demonization of Iran proves yet again that regardless of whether the target adopts a confrontational or conciliatory approach, the hegemon will continue to pursue its agenda. It is an agenda that has a power and potency of its own. In the context of WANA, Israel, it is so apparent, is the driving force behind US hegemonic power.
Making people everywhere aware of this and what its consequences are is one of the most urgent tasks at hand. This task is perhaps a little less difficult today compared to the past for two reasons. One, as we have stated a number of times before, US helmed hegemonic power is declining. People are becoming much more critical of US’s global role now. Two, the citizens of WANA in particular are acutely conscious of what hegemonic intervention can lead to after witnessing the chaos and catastrophe that have befallen Iraq and Afghanistan. They are also beginning to sense--- after the initial euphoria---- that Libya may also be heading towards calamity. Foreign intervention they know is not the solution. It is the problem.
While mass consciousness building about the danger of hegemony as the ultimate repudiation of human dignity will take time, we could propose some immediate measures that should be taken to avert military strikes against Iran and to prevent a war in WANA. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) grouping could through the UN Security Council suggest a new nuclear deal which would allow Iran limited uranium enrichment under strict supervision within a larger treaty signed by all the states in WANA and other leading powers that pledges to create a nuclear weapon free zone in the region within a certain time-frame. The manufacture, storage, sale and distribution of other weapons of mass destruction should also be prohibited. As the formulation of such a treaty begins in earnest, all sanctions against Iran should also be lifted. There are other challenges notably the Israeli occupation of Arab lands, the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state and the status of Israel, which should also be resolved at the same time.
Is there still time to persuade the powers-that-be to consider proposals like this? Or is it already too late in the day? Is the hegemon--- or is Israel--- about to strike?
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Malaysia27 January 2012